Truth, accuracy and history

New interpretation keeps most of historical texts (accounts) alive and relevant. That is the beauty of what we call history

In Thucydides’ (460 BC-400 BC) classic book, History of the Peloponnesian War (the war was fought between 431 BC and 401 BC), rhetoric overrides facts, therefore, historical accuracy becomes elusive. Is this not so? That was a query put to me by an undergraduate student.

To put it differently, the emphasis that the author lays on recording the views of the characters participating in the act of war, the objective truth gets shrouded under the multiple layers of subjective opinions that the book under scrutiny, is riddled with. Lengthy speeches and statements, the principal constituent of the narrative, make it more of a literary text than a historical one.

I will invoke the complex formulae of Hayden White and Emily Greenwood (Yale historian and writer of a famous book, Thucydides and shaping of History) to analyse the text of ancient Greek writer, reporting on a war of epic proportions between Athens and Sparta. She found the text getting further apart from the realm of history. Hayden White is known for his path-breaking book, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, a book that virtually super-ordinates literature over historical texts. It tends therefor to examine any text (even though it is purely historical) through the tools of literary criticism.

That probably was the reason that hardcore historians like late Christopher Bayly were dismissive of Hayden White’s method of examining historical texts. When I had a conversation with him on the subject, Bayly’s take was that what Thucydides, or any other historian, wrote was historical account and should be judged using historical method.

Thucydides was an Athenian general. He was profoundly keen on recording the events. This made his work the only source of knowing the details about Peloponnesian War. The knowledge that he was an army general, occasionally dabbling in politics, help us make sense of his tendency to insert long passages from speeches and statements in a book which was meant originally to be a war account.

But what I want to highlight here is with respect to ‘accuracy’ of the historical truth about the Peloponnesian War, which cannot be verified through any other sources because Thucydides’ book is the only treatise that has dealt with that event. Thus, whether what Thucydides reported was accurate or not, it nevertheless constitutes our historical truth which cannot be controverted through any alternative source pertaining to the event of the 5th Century BC.

To me ‘accuracy’ is an expression used to describe quantitative subject matter, and history, to the best of my understanding, is not essentially a quantitative subject.

One inference we can draw from the assertion made here is that the truth (historical or absolute) does not need accuracy or precision to be ‘truth’.

Fortunately, I came up with an answer that made sense to the student, but I was left wondering about the difference between ‘historical accuracy’ and precision and their relationship with truth/claim to truth. ‘Truth’ itself becomes problematic when deployed in singular terms. Thus, historical truth has to be different from the absolute truth which generally has a religious connotation and as an absolute transcends the mutations that the historical process warrants. But before unraveling these intricacies about truth and its various forms, it would be pertinent to deal with accuracy, precision, and their relationship with history. Such vocabulary is relatively new in history. Steady obsolescence of expressions like ‘objectivity’ from the jargon of history has opened space for words and phrases with similar meaning.

The word ‘accuracy’ has entered the vocabulary specific to history. Is it an attempt to rid history of subjectivity (subjective opinions) that had dominated the discipline of history since post-structuralism? But that merely is a question posed to those of my colleagues who are professionally trained historians, to reflect and enlighten on this subject.

To me ‘accuracy’ is an expression used to describe quantitative subject matter, and history, to the best of my understanding, is not essentially a quantitative subject. It mostly deals with descriptive details, involving thoughts and events.

While reporting on events or analysing thoughts, concepts (or ideas) using quantitative tool, and methods one cannot expect to get results with mathematical precision. Reportage of the event or analysis of thoughts and concepts happens in a context but more importantly conclusions drawn from history cannot be equated with the answers to the mathematical queries.

The answer to any mathematical question has to be accurate but conclusions drawn from any historical text are at best an opinion, liable to be mutated with the passage and exigency of time. Is it an attempt to bring back positivism as history’s defining feature? It is apparently so because such (quantitative) vocabulary is now in wide circulation in the history departments of the world’s top-ranked universities.

Is truth predicated on accuracy or precision? That is a very loaded question and a sensitive one, too. One possible answer to this question is as loaded as the question itself. Truth, whether absolute or historical, is far too big a phenomenon to be reduced to the quantitative method of verification and be designated as accurate. Historical truth is transient. It can hardly be accurate because it changes with time (and also with the change in space).

Absolute truth is embedded in a belief system that is super-imposed from above through persuasion or coercive means and methods. Absolute truth sustains itself because large masses of people forge consensus on the truth claim(s), which are far beyond the capacity of any quantitative method to verify.

With all these doubts about accuracy, its utility as a tool to validate historical truth needs serious deliberation by historians. I conclude this column by asserting that history and the methods of inquiry associated with it, despite several attempts have guarded its autonomy against the overriding influence of scientific method and its tools of analysis simply because it cannot be tied down to the chains of exactitude. New interpretation keeps most of historical texts (accounts) alive and relevant. That is the beauty of what we call history.

Truth, accuracy and history